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Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Uncompromising Visions

Gurnah’s haunting novels of war and oppression, which won him the Nobel Prize in literature last year, defy the dominant trends in American publishing.

Three worlds collide in Afterlives, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s latest novel. There is the peaking of European colonialism in the early twentieth century, as Germany, a latecomer to the imperialist game, attempts to create an entity called Deutsch-Ostafrika. There is the Indo-Islamic world, consisting mostly of traders who have traveled from Gujarat, on the west coast of India, to set up their businesses and moneylending networks in East Africa. And there is the African, often Indigenous, world, coping with the onslaught of the former and the predatory instincts of the latter, diverse peoples trying to come to terms with market and empire.

These worlds, as depicted by Gurnah, are not entirely discrete. They overlap, spill over, influence one another right from the start. Khalifa, with whom the novel begins, contains something of everything while being very much his own man. He is Muslim, although not particularly devout. A clerk for Amur Biashara, an Indian merchant, Khalifa is to some degree westernized; unlike his employer, he can read and write in the “roman alphabet.” He is also both Indian and African. “Yes, yes, my father was an Indian. I don’t look it, hey?” Khalifa thinks on the opening page, as the novel slides deftly from distant third person into interior discourse. “He married my mother and stayed loyal to her. Some Indian men play around with African women until they are ready to send for an Indian wife then abandon them. My father never left my mother.”

Neither protagonist nor hero, Khalifa is a beguiling creation. There are, in fact, no heroes in this novel, only a small cast of principal characters—Khalifa; his wife Bi Asha, their marriage arranged by Amur, who is Bi Asha’s uncle and has cheated her out of her inheritance; Afiya, an orphan rescued by Khalifa and Bi Asha from appalling servitude and abuse; Afiya’s brother Ilyas; and Hamza, a runaway who becomes a soldier—among whom the novel switches deftly and with considerable tenderness as it portrays the horror of colonial wars and their ripple effects on everyday life.

by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Riverhead Books, 320 pp., $28.00

Ilyas and Hamza, younger and more deprived in their upbringing than Khalifa, are the characters through whom we experience the wars head-on. Both are drafted into the “schutztruppe,” an army composed of African soldiers and German officers. “They finally subdued the Wahehe after eight years of war, starving and crushing and burning out their resistance,” Gurnah writes. “In their triumph, the Germans cut off the head of the Wahehe leader Mkwawa and sent it to Germany as a trophy. The schutztruppe askari, aided by local recruits from among the defeated people, were by then a highly experienced force of destructive power … proud of their reputation for viciousness….” Their terrain of viciousness expands steadily until the Germans inevitably collide with the British, who have their own imperial armies manned by Indian and African troops. Europeans, Indians, and Africans—no one is left undamaged as the conflict becomes global and apocalyptic in scale, climaxing with World War II.

Gurnah, however, is not interested only in the masculine zone of soldiers and war making. The true heart of the novel lies in how Khalifa, Bi Asha, and Afiya experience war and colonialism from home, how ideas of empire and racial superiority and military dominance play out in the domestic realm of house and hearth. This is where the central idea of the novel reverberates: How does one live one’s everyday life through what appears to be the end of one’s world? It is a question that comes across as hauntingly contemporary, even though the events being described are from a century ago, and it leads naturally to a second question. Why did it take so long for American publishers to recognize this work—so much so that when Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2021, many of his books were not even in print in the United States?

Born in 1948 in Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa and today part of Tanzania, Gurnah fled to Britain in the 1960s. Zanzibar’s liberation from British rule in the early ’60s had been accompanied by civil unrest, the African majority rebelling against the Arab and Indian elites in what Gurnah was to describe nearly 60 years later as a series of “detentions, executions, expulsions, and endless small and large indignities and oppressions.” Gurnah’s migration to Britain—at around the time when Tory member of Parliament Enoch Powell delivered his famous “rivers of blood” speech and portrayed a dystopic future of hardworking white Britons swamped by criminal, dark-skinned foreigners—offered him a parallel experience of oppression at the heart of the former empire. Together, they would provide the themes animating Gurnah’s prodigious fictional corpus.

Paradise (1994), Gurnah’s fourth novel, has the same East African setting as Afterlives, and in its story of Yusuf, a 12-year-old boy sold by his father to repay a debt, it provides a similar window into a precolonial world forced into brutal transformation by the arrival of Western modernity. In its bones a coming-of-age story, the pages of Paradise shimmer with a terrible beauty. Slavery alternates with ceremonial dances. Caravan journeys across unforgiving terrain are cut up by ribald conversations, the story unfolding in a world so varied and polyphonous that it is hard to believe it had ceased to exist by the time Gurnah was writing about it in a faraway country that prized homogeneity over everything.

But postimperial Britain exerted its own fascination over Gurnah, and his novels alternate restlessly from an East Africa of the past to the Britain of the present, as if they comprise two parts of a puzzle—parts that do not quite fit—that it will take a lifetime of writing to solve. “I know I came to writing in England, in estrangement, and I realise now that it is this condition of being from one place and living in another that has been my subject over the years, not as a unique experience which I have undergone, but as one of the stories of our times,” Gurnah wrote in The Guardian in 2004.

In By the Sea (2001), Gurnah gives voice to this sense of estrangement through the story of Saleh Omar, an asylum seeker in Britain from Zanzibar, and Latif Mahmud, a man from Saleh’s past who is now introduced to him as a person “at the University of London who is an expert on your area.” Stylistically quite different from the East African novels in its first-person voice, By the Sea is a compelling riposte to the well-meaning but shallow depiction of refugees and migrants in most Western fiction. Instead of a self-congratulatory understanding of the West as a place of values, a slightly imperfect paradise to which desperate people flee from their authoritarian, Third World states, Gurnah shows us an England that is painfully gray, hollowed out by bureaucracy, racism, and loneliness. The asylum seeker is the one who has the much fuller life, and whose experience of pain and suffering is accompanied by an understanding of the world as varied and plural, something far exceeding the good-and-evil binary that Western liberalism has made of it.

Recognition for this writing came slowly but steadily in Britain. Paradise (1994) was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and By the Sea (2001) was long-listed, while Desertion (2005), his seventh novel, made it to the short list for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In October 2021, Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for what the prize committee called “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” He was the first Black writer to receive the award since Toni Morrison won it in 1993, and the accolade for Gurnah’s work was a way of noting the eerie resonance of his novels and the fact that colonialism and forced migration remain the great subjects of our times.

Growing critical acclaim in the U.K. did not, however, offset Gurnah’s relative obscurity in the United States, where his novels appeared in a sporadic manner. Paradise was published by the New Press. A couple of other novels appeared under the aegis of Pantheon and Grove Atlantic and were rapidly allowed to fall out of print. Afterlives, Gurnah’s tenth novel, had no U.S. publisher. When the award of the Nobel led to a flurry of interest in his work from American readers, it was almost impossible to find his books here. Eventually, the Penguin Random House behemoth decided to acquire three of Gurnah’s novels, its reissues of By the Sea and Desertion accompanied by the release of Afterlives.

Reading Afterlives, one doesn’t find it hard to understand why recognition took so long here, where both the novel’s aesthetics and its subject matter would have been a cause for incomprehension among literary gatekeepers. There is little in the novel that follows the dominant trends of American writing and publishing. It eschews focus on a single character and strenuously discards any hint of the heroic, which includes avoiding a single-minded notion of trauma that characters must overcome. Afiya and Hamza both suffer immensely, the first at the hands of the couple who temporarily offer her shelter and treat her almost as a slave, the latter at the hands of the African NCOs and German officers in the schutztruppe. But while abuse scars their bodies and minds, their capacity to forge relationships offers a nuanced answer to the question of how to live through end times. Redemption, ultimately, belongs not to a single character but to a community, and when it comes, it is low-key and provisional.

In style, too, Gurnah cuts against American preferences, above all the injunction to “show, rather than tell.” There is a lot of telling, and the novel’s primary mode consists of long stretches of summary and description. Dialogue, although sparingly used, is rendered in a fantastic polyphony of English, German, Kiswahili, and Arabic. Interiority is simple, made complex by the intricacy of the interrelationships and the terrifying sweep of social change rather than a parsing of individual emotion. “She did not even know she had a real brother,” Afiya thinks after she has been rescued by Ilyas.

She could not believe he was here, that he had just walked in off the road and was waiting to take her away. He was so clean and beautiful, and he laughed so easily. He told her afterward that he was angry with her uncle and aunt but he did not show it because it would have seemed that he was being ungrateful when they had taken her in although she was not a relative. They had taken her in, that was not nothing.

This stylistic approach, together with the specificity of the world being depicted, creates a haunting effect. Afterlives makes one feel—in a manner akin to Octavia Butler’s insight that dystopia does not lurk merely in the future but also in the past—not as though one is reading historical fiction, safely bracketed off from our present, but a work set dimly in a future to which we are uneasily connected. This is evident in the depictions of war that show the schutztruppe reduced to unshod looters, the officers in rags, soldiers and officers hating each other while pursuing a scorched-earth policy against local villagers. It is even more apparent in Gurnah’s portrayal of everyday life, where the fundamentals of existence—food, shelter, health, maternal health, neonatal care—are rendered enormously fraught by the intersection of war and colonialism. For a reader truly hungry about the world, all this comes across as tremendously absorbing, but it could equally be alienating to those who demand their fiction neatly packaged, relatable, familiar, and always conforming to their view of the world.

The indifference toward Gurnah in the United States contrasts sharply with the meteoric career here of V.S. Naipaul, with whom Gurnah shares certain superficial traits. Both migrated to Britain from the edges of the former empire amid decolonization, and both occupied an uneasy position in relation to the majority populations who had liberated themselves from colonial rule. There is nothing in Gurnah, however, of the native informant role—and the accompanying misogyny and racism—that made Naipaul such a celebrated figure in London and New York in the heyday of the Cold War.

Instead, Gurnah has far more in common, in sensibility if not in style, with W.G. Sebald, who, like Gurnah, left his home country—in his case Germany—to live in Britain as a professor of literature while pursuing a parallel career as a writer. Sebald, while engaged in exploring the effects of colonialism, especially in the Belgian Congo, was always perceived in the United States as a European writer whose true subject was the Holocaust. Gurnah’s writing could not claim to be either European, in the manner of Sebald, or an exposé of what Naipaul called—referring to the vast swaths of Latin America, Asia, and Africa that had shaken off formal colonial rule—“half-made societies.” His fictional journey has been quieter, more nuanced, sometimes so much so that it can be hard to guess what he thinks of some of the things he is depicting.

In Afterlives, an exorcism takes place toward the end of the novel, which Gurnah describes in the following manner:

The drumming went on for an hour, for two hours, monotonous and getting louder. The singer raised her pitch but her words were as incomprehensible as before, if they were words at all. The shekhiya was reciting prayers but they were inaudible in the din and rhythm of the drums… She began to mutter and after a while that became a word: Yallah. Yallah.

Where Naipaul would have curled his lips at what to him could be nothing other than superstition or fake tradition, a marker of a non-Western society’s inability to enter the cold light of modernity, Gurnah is far more ambiguous. There are just enough hints, especially in the wording, to create a critical distance from the ceremony. The reader is also likely to be influenced by the fact that the most affecting character in the novel, Khalifa, is a skeptic when it comes to such rituals. “All the perfume and drumming and stupid wailing… That woman knows a source of income when she spots one,” he says. Yet the advice that comes from the shekhiya after her long, tedious ceremony is a shock to the reader in the insight it offers, and one is left with the conclusion that if the shekhiya is half charlatan, she is also quite possibly half seer.

This is Gurnah’s approach, throughout: a humanism that does much to make up for the one odd absence in his novel. While so remarkably full in many aspects, Afterlives never engages with the possibility of resistance to the imperialism it depicts so masterfully. There is plenty of unhappiness and suspicion among its characters for the European world system that has turned their lives upside down, but nothing of the anti-colonialism that played a significant role in the liberation of Africa from formal colonial rule. Even when Afterlives skips ahead to decolonization, toward the very end, resistance is more or less a rumor, the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and the brutalities unleashed in response by the British state rendered largely as a backdrop.

It seems likely that this absence reflects the circumstances of Gurnah’s forced departure from a newly liberated Tanzania and his ambivalent feelings about the postcolonial states that came into being. But if there are no collective possibilities for his characters, no solidarity to be found in organizing, that too can make his novel come across as powerfully contemporary. In a time that, as Gurnah depicts it, political resistance is not a possibility, the important things are love and loyalty.

This is why Khalifa, with whom the novel opens, is such a resonant character. He is, in spite of the circumstances, a child of love, of two cultures, African and Indian, meeting not in hostility but in fulfillment. Even when the novel turns, at the very end, into the far darker account of Ilyas and his jagged journey from Africa into the heart of Nazi Germany, Gurnah does not let go of those presiding ideas about love and loyalty. The breathtaking denouement of the novel carries us into the concentration camps—the climactic act, as it were, of German imperialism—but its closing lines insist that love still matters. Just as “loyal” is the most important word on the first page of the novel, “love” is the word standing firm at the very end, insisting that the bond between one human being and another counts for something even as entire worlds are extinguished around them.